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The behavior you are asking for doesn’t have to be complicated; you can start with something your cat already does naturally, like sitting on her perch. The key is to teach your cat to associate the behavior with the reward. A simple way to do this is by using a marker to pinpoint behavior that’s being reinforced. The marker specifies the correct behavior as it happens and links it with the reward that follows.
I prefer to use a clicker to mark desired behavior when I’m training a cat, but a specific word, like “good” or “yes” can also be used as a marker — just be consistent about the word you use. Because the marker is not innately rewarding in itself, it is important that you always follow the signal with a reward (ideally within one to two seconds of the click or word). And, of course, the reward should be something your cat really likes: a lick of a soft treat, playtime with a special toy or access to a desired place, for example.
Cats are adept at reading people and figuring out which behaviors will work to get the outcome they desire, which helps them to learn new behaviors quickly. This may be why it so frequently appears as though the cat has trained the people: She has learned, through experience, that certain behaviors (meowing and pawing) garner desired results (petting or food). Of course, this is exactly what makes reward-based training so effective: Your cat quickly learns which behaviors bring the best results.
When it comes time for the training, it’s important to start with an idea of what the final behavior will look like when it’s finished. This serves as a road map for the training. Sometimes a cat naturally does a behavior on her own, such as a sit, and this can be marked and rewarded when it occurs.
But more difficult behaviors may need to be taught in steps, starting with something simple. For instance, if you are teaching your cat to high five, you may start by rewarding for a sit. From there, you can add other behaviors, such as high paw raise while sitting. Eventually, your cat will learn to put all the pieces together. Keep in mind, though, that more complicated tricks — those that require multiple steps — may require extra special rewards, like a nibble of your cat’s absolute favorite tasty treat.
Once your cat is reliably doing a behavior or trick, you can add a verbal cue to the clicker. Start by saying the word, such as “sit,” just as your cat does the behavior; this helps to create an association between the word and the cat’s action. You may have to repeat this process a number of times before your cat begins to associate the word (“sit”) with the action (sitting), but eventually you will be ready to progress to saying the word just before your cat does the behavior (rather than as she is doing it). After each successful pairing of the word and the behavior, reward your cat.
After enough repetitions, your cat will learn to pair the word with the action and will respond to hearing the cue by doing the behavior — in anticipation, of course, of her reward.
Training doesn’t need to be overwhelming for you or your cat. Shorter sessions, lasting from 20 seconds to five minutes, are actually best. Choose training with minimal distractions, such as in a room where the cat is already comfortable. In addition, it is important that you get in the habit of routinely rewarding desired behaviors in normal interactions with your cat, to reinforce the desired behavior.
If you’re trying to resolve a problem behavior, it’s important to know in advance what you want your cat to do in place of the unwanted behavior, as your efforts are best spent building and rewarding desired behavior rather than on eliminating unacceptable behavior. For example, if your cat demands attention and petting by pawing and vocalizing, you will need to teach her both that this behavior doesn’t work any longer and that sitting quietly on her perch does.
If your cat has serious behavior issues and does not respond to training, it is important to know that there are various resources available to you. Rather than giving up and just living with an unresolved issue, or resorting to surrender, seek out qualified help, such as with a veterinary behaviorist, veterinarian or a reward-based training professional working in combination with a veterinarian.
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